The world of professional sports right now is a study in leadership contrasts.
In the NFL, we have Roger Goodell, an eight-year veteran of the top job fumbling repeatedly in his response to the Ray Rice controversy. He suspended the Baltimore Ravens running back for just two games for domestic violence, a relative slap on the wrist compared with the NFL's other punishments. He reportedly interviewed Rice and his then-fiancee together as he learned what happened, a no-no among domestic violence experts. And he has been reactive rather than proactive, bringing stiffer penalties only after an unrelenting public outcry -- and finally, Rice's indefinite suspension only after a brutal video of Rice punching his now-wife in an elevator surfaced Monday.
Now, just days after many -- myself included -- applauded Goodell for admitting he was wrong, some are calling for Goodell's job. Others are questioning his tenacity, his credibility or his judgment, asking: How does a celebrity Web site get a copy of a video, and the NFL's lawyers and investigators don't? How does Goodell convincingly speak out on domestic violence now? And what did he think happened in that elevator exactly?
Meanwhile, in the NBA, we have Adam Silver, whose response to the Donald Sterling affair just three months into his own tenure was seen as exemplary. He was emotionally raw and visibly angry in his news conference announcing the NBA would urge the league's Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the team. He was immediately decisive and authoritative in the lifetime ban and maximum fine he gave Sterling, who'd come under fire for racist remarks after a history of troubling past behavior.
As a result, Silver was hailed by civil rights groups for his "strong and uncompromising stance." His credibility seemed to soar, and his leadership was applauded by team owners for the quick and decisive way he responded with zero tolerance.
Most important of all, his actions appear to have had an impact, sending the message loud and clear that there is no place for racism in the NBA: Over the weekend, Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson announced he was selling his controlling interest in the team after self-reporting an e-mail he wrote back in 2012 that included racially offensive comments.
Perhaps the two men just have different leadership styles. Perhaps their varying tenures at the top made a difference -- a veteran's relative comfort at the top vs. a newcomer's need to imprint his leadership on the league. But Goodell and Silver provide a stark study in contrasts of two leaders, each responding to a crisis and an ensuing public outcry that erupted into a national conversation.
What's clear is what the public wants to see from the people who run these organizations that entertain us, inspire us, and at times, deeply unsettle us. They expect strong leadership and an authoritative, proactive response. They want professional sports' beneficiaries to be held accountable in decisive and unyielding fashion for their off-court or off-field actions. And they want to see leaders who make changes and wield power in ways that will have lasting impact, rather than simply clean up the current headline crisis until the next one comes along.
In short, they want to see a response just like Silver's -- and nothing like Goodell's.